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Sexuality and Human Rights in Muslim Societies

In our struggle to promote women’s human rights, we frequently have to confront the mechanisms of patriarchal control over women’s sexuality. These collective mechanisms play a crucial and defining role in the propagation, legitimization and reproduction of gender discrimination and inequality in numerous fields, including the public sphere. With their rules conveniently presented as uncontestable taboos, they legitimize human rights violations and act as some of the most powerful tools for the control of women’s sexuality.

Sexuality: Still a Contested Domain

Taboos around sexuality, reinforced by the rise of conservative political forces, continue to generate and maintain oppressive constructs and misconceptions about women’s sexuality. This not only prevents many women from having an affirmative approach to sexuality and the opportunity to enjoy positive sexual experiences, but also infringes on fundamental rights and freedoms such as health, education, mobility, hindering equal participation in social, economic and political spheres.

Conservative political forces are striving to maintain and reinforce control over women′s sexuality with ever increasing resolve. In the last decade we have witnessed women’s bodies and sexuality increasingly becoming arenas of intense conflict. Conservative and religious right political forces are fiercely trying to maintain or reinforce traditional mechanisms of control over women’s sexuality and even create new ones. Four UN conferences held in the 1990s –the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, the 1995 Beijing Conference, the 1999 five-year review of the ICPD (ICPD+5) and the 2000 five-year review of the Beijing Conference (Beijing+5) – witnessed the Catholic and Muslim religious right engaging in unprecedented cooperation to oppose and restrict women’s right to control their bodies and sexuality.

In this context, several traditional cultural practices – such as honor crimes, the stoning of women accused of adultery, virginity tests, FGM – in Muslim societies, including the Middle East, have increasingly drawn the attention of the Western media and public in recent years as human rights abuses. The lack of information on Islam and the wide diversity of Muslim societies; the parallel rise of the Islamic religious right, which claims such customary practices to be Islamic; and the tendency to “essentialize” Islam have led to the incorrect portrayal of such practices as “Islamic” in the West. This depiction is not only misleading, but also stands in sharp contrast to the efforts of women’s movements in Muslim societies, which, in their fight against such practices, are campaigning to raise public consciousness that such practices are actually customary practices that have nothing to do with Islam. In the last decade, Islamic fundamentalist movements have been further propagating such customary practices in the name of Islam to societies, where they were previously unheard of.

Our Struggle: Countering Global Conservative Politics and Challenging Taboos around Sexuality

In the midst of all this adversity, determined efforts by activists to promote sexual rights as human rights worldwide are spreading and gaining strength, countering global conservative politics and challenging taboos around sexuality. Women at international and national levels, as well as at the grassroots, are vigorously struggling to realize their sexual and reproductive rights, becoming more vocal and advocating on numerous platforms. In the past decade, women’s NGOs and women’s movements in Muslim societies have been vehemently advocating to eliminate such practices and attitudes related to women’s sexuality, such as honor crimes, sexual coercion and violence, marital rape, sexual harassment, restrictions on women’s mobility, seclusion, forced/early marriages, “imposed” dress codes or virginity tests.

In 2001, the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies, became the first solidarity network of NGO representatives, academicians and researcher advocating for sexual and bodily rights as human rights in Muslim societies. Past activities within the framework of this program include publications, advocacy and lobbying, advocacy at the UN level and organizing of regional and international meetings as well as trainings on relevant issues, all of them geared towards the ultimate aim of consciousness raising and advocacy around sexual and bodily rights and health in Muslim societies.